Conan McDonnell of BeeActiv honey shows us inside the wonderful world of bees in their home in Adare, Co.Limerick. BeeActiv Blossom honey recently won a silver medal at the Blás na hÉireann awards.
EING an artisan food producer wasn’t something that Conan McDonnell had in mind when he returned to college to study chemistry in Limerick Institute of Technology after the recession bit.
He is one of the new breed whose careers took a U-turn and are now working in the small food business sector.
His wife had thought it would be nice to keep bees some years back, and after that Conan got involved in setting up the the Urban Beekeepers in Limerick, who have set up hives in unlikely places around the city.
Cities are ideal place for bees to thrive due to the large number of species of plants and wildflowers on byways and unkempt gardens.
“The manicured lawn offers little to a bee,” says the now converted full-time bee keeper, “If we planted meadows instead of lawns we would really be helping our endangered population of bees.”
With a past in sales and a present in chemistry, the evolution of Beeactiv honey as a product on the shelves of good food shops, maybe an obvious combination.
“Really it came out of a project that I was doing related to honey while I was studying for my chemistry degree under Mike Geary in LIT.
“The project was on basic honey analysis and I got specifically interested in ivy honey as nobody was processing it or selling it. Ivy is a natural expectorant and is very effective for coughs.”
Ivy honey crystallises very fast and is therefore difficult to extract and not attractive to the honey producer but Conan and Michael, the other half of Beeactiv, saw the therapeutic properties of the ivy honey as a unique feature, and one that Irish people might love, given our tendencies for coughs and chest problems.
Like many beekeepers, Conan was obsessed with these incredible creatures and had met his match in Dr Mike Geary and so decided to further his research into the honey and the ivy.
“At the end of my fourth year I felt the urge to apply for a master’s by research at LIT where I could study in absolute detail the plant, the honey, and all its merits. I concentrated on the two most active and abundant compounds in the plant: Saponins.
“This class of compounds are found in many plant species and are extremely varying in their nature and characteristics. In ivy they are extensively linked to the plant’s mucolytic and bronchodilating effects; helping to clear viscous mucus and improve breathing in the lungs.
“I wondered, as a scientist, could I look for the presence of saponins in honey produced from the ivy. And in October 2013 I found them.
“After that, what I saw in this magical honey and what some other beekeepers saw, were very two different things. I saw healing and uniqueness and flavour, and above all, something precious.
“Mike too was very excited and I knew by his constant support over the years and great knowledge we would make a strong team. So that’s what we did, team up as partners in a new business which we called Beeactiv.”
It’s now two years since the pair have been putting their own honey in jars, and they also work with other beekeepers in Ireland who are fastidious about their bees and honey production.
“We can’t produce all of what we need for our honeys, so we trust the beekeepers we are working with.”
Being up close with bees is a thrilling experience. In my time studying at organic college, beekeeping was my favourite task. First you have to suit up of course, unless you are gung-ho and don’t think you will get stung as some beekeepers don’t seem to.
Then you get the smoker ready — a little smoke calms the bees down so that when you take the lid off the hive they won’t go nuts.
All the worker bees in the hives are female; the males are discarded once they have been used to mate, as they don’t really do much in the line of work, so the workers are sterile females, but if the queen dies these ladies can, in fact, lay their own eggs.
The smell of a beehive is intoxicating and the solidity with which they re-enforce their fortress, using propolis that they gather from plants, a totally different substance from honey, is impressive.
Conan had to gently lever off the layers of the hive and take out the honey frames to show me.
From the sounds and smells, and the magic of the process of honey making, these are creatures to be worshipped and guarded.
If you want to attract bees and give them something good to eat: Dandelions, borage, and mint are some of their favourite plants.
Ireland suffers a high rate of colossal colony loss and we need to protect our future by reducing the amount of chemical pesticides we use and by planting more wildflowers.
Honey has so many uses from treating hay fever to skin conditions like psoriasis to sore throats, as well as being a powerful all-round antibacterial superfood.
The lads won silver at the recent Blás na hÉireann awards in Dingle for their blossom honey and there is no doubt in Conan’s mind that the silver sticker on the jar makes the honey stand out from the crowd.
Now being busy bees (sorry), tearing around in their Beeactiv honey van, Conan is finding the multi-tasking life of the small producer to be good, but demanding.
Sales and demand for the products, which include a tasty honey lozenge, are on the up and the pair are enjoying a huge buzz.
To check out Conan’s blog and keep up to date with the Beeactiv world check out www.ivyhoney.com